If a writer tells another person’s story, is it an honor or an appropriation? That question lies at the heart of Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories,” currently receiving a sharp and compelling production by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company.
Margulies’ two-hander, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1997, charts the relationship of two women over the course of several years. Ruth (Maggie Bearmon Pistner) is an established writer and professor, confident, imperious and impatient. Lisa (Ashley Rose Montondo) is a student in her writing class, gawky, voluble and insecure. Despite some initial reservations, the prickly Ruth recognizes Lisa’s budding talent and agrees to serve as her mentor.
As their relationship deepens over six scenes, we see various emotional permutations build between mentor and mentee. At times they seem almost like mother and daughter, drinking lemonade on the balcony or squabbling over mislaid paperwork. At other moments, hints of rivalry emerge, as Lisa resists Ruth’s attempts to guide her course and pupil begins to surpass teacher.
During one of these scenes, Ruth reveals her deepest secret to Lisa — a youthful affair with poet Delmore Schwartz. She’s devastated when Lisa later uses that relationship as the story line of her first novel. Lisa tearfully claims that she intended the act as a gift, not a theft. Ruth, on the other hand, characterizes Lisa’s novel as not just emotional but also cultural appropriation, substituting what Lisa perceives as Ruth’s richer Jewish heritage for her own WASPy suburban background.
Director Jennie Ward offers a nicely paced production that wisely allows her two strong actors all the time they need to develop the nuance and complexity of these characters. Pistner delivers a razor-sharp, often blistering performance as Ruth. It’s a delight to watch her initial haughty, tightly controlled and world-weary attitude toward her awkward and effusive student soften almost reluctantly into friendship. At one point in the second scene, after deliberately wounding Lisa’s feelings, we see her stiffly wordless yet eloquent sense of regret as she stands in the darkness and steels herself to mend fences.
In contrast, Montondo’s Lisa is a whirlwind of ebullient and unrestrained emotion. She’s the bull in the china shop of Ruth’s cozy, book-filled Greenwich Village apartment (beautifully evoked by set designer Michael Hoover), spilling tea cups and tears in equal measure. Montondo skillfully details her character’s slow yet inevitable progression out of Ruth’s orbit as she absorbs the older woman’s life lessons.
This solid production, with its two masterfully executed character studies, powerfully communicates both the intellectual conundrum that “Collected Stories” presents and the emotional maelstrom that underlies it.
Lisa Brock is a local freelance critic.